Do people get hurt worse now than they used to?
My memory was faulty even when it was perfect, but I don’t remember people falling off their bikes and getting hurt as much as they do now. There was a guy one time who I didn’t know back in ’85 who was getting chased by a dog up around Georgetown, and he fell off and hit his head and died. That was considered a pretty legit injury back then, dying.
People talked about it a lot and about how when your number was up, well, better go ahead and make arrangements at the funeral parlor. There was a lot of fatalism. There was also a lot of helmet bashing, because the guy had been wearing a Bell Biker. Remember those? They were the size of a small motor home, and weighed like one, too. Everyone nodded grimly about how helmets were worthless and whatnot.
But people still didn’t seem to get hurt like they do now, and no one wore a helmet. Broken hips weren’t simply a rarity; I’d never heard of it happening. People had bicycle falling off incidents all the time in races, in fact bike racing was a euphemism for that, and they almost always hopped back on and finished the race. Road rash was pretty much the worst thing you could get, that and a badly busted ego.
And training rides were mostly injury free, even though a lot of the guys I rode with were always stoned. Or maybe it’s because they were stoned, I don’t know. Some wanker would fall off his bike and take down another couple of idiots, there would be some cussing and finger pointing, and we would continue on.
Nowadays it isn’t that way. I couldn’t list all the people who have suffered serious injuries if I tried, and those are the people I personally know. Broken humerus, broken hip, broken neck, broken spine, closed head injury, broken hand, severed digit, broken knee, facial fracture, death, catastrophic brain injury, paralysis … the list is endless, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m a lot older and have therefore ridden a lot more miles and seen a lot more falls, or just because my job is “bike injury lawyer,” although those are surely factors.
I think the reason people get hurt more, and get hurt more badly, is because they go faster than they used to. And I think the main reason they go faster than they used to is because of equipment.
The biggest speed multiplier is of course wheels. Used to be, the only fast wheels were aluminum-rim tubulars, and the only people who had them were racers. Even those wheels weren’t that fast; thirty-six spoke, box rim, metal wheels were standard “race wheels,” with “blazing fast” wheels having 32 or 28 spokes. Those wheels were slow. Heavy and slow and soft.
The bikes were heavy and mushy and there weren’t a whole lot of gears, and what also slowed you down was the fact that you couldn’t magically change gears with the flick of an index shifter. In sum, bikes go a lot faster today than they used to; 2-3 miles per hour, easy, probably closer to 5-6. I remember when, if you averaged 18 mph on a training ride you pretty much had to be scraped off the saddle with a spatula. People average 20 now without even batting an eye, to say nothing of 23, 24, and up.
Just look at what aero has done to triathlon, and how many tri-dorks get hurt in training and racing. You may think that riding by yourself is as safe as it gets, but I know one idiot who bought a fancy TT bike, went down to Fiesta Island, and broke his neck because he lost control in the start/finish area. The bikes go crazy fast, and the combination of fast wheels, low profile, narrow bars, twitchy front end, and basement-level IQ means that the risk for falling is higher than it used to be.
And the speeds may not sound like much, but when your average speed is around 16 or 17, and it goes up to 23 (or 27-28 if you’re on a TT bike), the potential for crashing jumps exponentially. The decrease in reaction time isn’t linear, and the same goes for the impact when your meatbag comes off the bicycle and slams onto the asphalt. Falling at 17 is nothing like falling at 28; just ask Fiesta Island Brokeneck. And of course top ends are higher because those light bikes with fast wheels can easily hit the low 30’s. Throw in a tailwind and a light downhill grade and you’re in the mid-high 30’s as a Cat 5.
The low 30’s … remember those? Those used to be the finishing speeds of people who won real bike races. Now it just means you were mid-pack. And some middle-aged dude on a crazy light, crazy fast bike pedaling like mad on the weekend ride can hit those speeds almost as easily as he can hit the pavement, with catastrophic results.
There are probably other force multipliers, such as the false sense of security people get from helmets, the number of people who get into cycling with no previous riding background, older and frailer riders, more cars on the roads, and the omnipresent quotient of dumbfuckery among the general human population, but it seems to me that the faster you go, the harder you’re gonna fall.
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